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As disciples of Christ, we must recognize the dignity of each person

Joseph F. Naumann is Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

On April 18, 2024, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith officially promulgated a document approved by Pope Francis on the “Infinite Dignity” of human beings. From the Christian perspective, human dignity is a consequence of the truth that every human being is created in the divine image and is of such worth that Jesus gave his life on Calvary for each one of us.

The document notes that the dignity of every human being was recognized 75 years ago by the United Nations in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is impossible to advocate for fundamental human rights absent the assumption of the dignity of every human being. Thus, human rights are not granted by any national or international body, but they flow organically from the affirmation of the innate dignity of every human being. Divine revelation is not necessary to understand human dignity. This truth is accessible to everyone through reason.

At the same time, Christian faith helps individuals to understand and embrace the dignity of every human life, no matter our intellectual, physical, social or economic limitations. The truth that the Second Person of the Triune God entered into our humanity by becoming an embryo in the womb of Mary, being born in the impoverished and austere circumstances of Bethlehem, growing up in the small, humble village of Nazareth, spending most of his adult life as a laborer, curing many from their physical illnesses during his earthly ministry, allowing himself to be executed unjustly for our sake, and telling his disciples that whenever they cared for the hungry, poor, sick or imprisoned, they were actually ministering to him reveals the great dignity of each and every human being.

The fact that Jesus died on the cross for each of us and offered us a share in his divine and everlasting life — giving us an eternal destiny to live with him and the saints forever — reinforces and amplifies what is accessible to us through reason alone — the innate dignity of every human being. Revelation also encourages and summons us to have compassion for the poor, the stranger, the sick, and those with physical and intellectual disabilities. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are not optional, but required for the Christian.

Being a disciple of Jesus means following him along the path of compassionate and heroic love for others. Moreover, Christians have a responsibility to attempt to alleviate the inhumane living conditions that many of the poor endure.

The document rejects efforts to limit the application of human rights only to those capable of human reasoning. To do so is a purposeful attempt to strip unborn children, the mentally disabled and the elderly with dementia from fundamental human rights.

Communism, fascism and other forms of statism believe the government has the authority to grant or deny fundamental human rights. Individuals are to serve the purposes of the state. This is a false and twisted understanding of human dignity. At the same time, the idealization of unfettered free markets can also have disastrous consequences upon the poor. Our understanding of the innate dignity of human beings compels us to reform unjust structures that keep the poor, poor.

On this matter, the document quotes Pope Francis: “Some people are born into economically stable families, receive a fine education, grow up well nourished or naturally possess great talent. They will certainly not need a proactive state; they need only [to] claim their freedom. Yet, the same rule clearly does not apply to a disabled person, to someone born into dire poverty, to those lacking a good education and with little access to adequate health care. If a society is governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency, there is no place for such persons, and fraternity will remain just another vague ideal.”

The document goes on to identify several serious threats to human dignity, for example, war, the plight of migrants, the travesty of human trafficking, sexual abuse, violence against women, abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia and assisted suicide, marginalization of those with disabilities, gender theory, sex change and digital violence. I encourage you to read the sections on each of these contemporary threats to human dignity.

However, since gender theory is so prominent in the public discourse, I will quote a portion of this section. Regarding gender theory, the document quotes Pope Francis’ concern about the departure from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights combined with an effort to add new pseudo rights:

“Regrettably, in recent decades, attempts have been made to introduce new rights that are neither fully consistent with those originally defined nor always acceptable. They have led to instances of ideological colonization, in which gender theory plays an essential role; the latter is extremely dangerous since it cancels differences in its claim to make everyone equal.” 

The document continues by acknowledging that the arguments for gender theory are contested by many doctors and scientists and then states: “the Church recalls that human life in all its dimensions, both physical and spiritual, is a gift from God. This gift is to be accepted with gratitude and placed at the service of the good. Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes, apart from this fundamental truth that human life is a gift, amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into competition with the true God of love revealed in the Gospel.”        

The Catholic Church had an important role in the development of the entire notion of fundamental human rights. This new document has been five years in the making. It carefully articulates our God-given human dignity. I encourage you to take the time to read the entire document. To conclude, I quote the document’s final paragraph:

“Even today, in the face of so many violations of human dignity that seriously threaten the future of the human family, the Church encourages the promotion of the dignity of every human person, regardless of their physical, mental, cultural, social and religious characteristics. The Church does this with hope, confident of the power that flows from the risen Christ, who has fully revealed the integral dignity of every man and woman. This certainty becomes an appeal in Pope Francis’ words directed to each one of us: ‘I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.’”

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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